Consumers these days expect more from brands than just products to buy. Around two-thirds want brands to take a stance on social issues, and over 50% believe they have more power to effect positive change than our government (these statistics, tellingly, come from an Edelman poll taken two years into Trump’s presidency).
Generally, a foolproof strategy for brands to follow is to listen to what their audience or consumer base is fired up about, and let that dictate where they try to make an impact, says Maxwell Zorick, social impact director for MTV, during a panel at the Fast Company Innovation Festival. “We often feel that our audience is ahead of culture, so we try to move culture to keep up with our audience,” Zorick says. In listening to their audience, for instance, Zorick realized they had to express support of the students participating in the school walkout for gun safety after the Parkland shooting. MTV and all of Viacom cut programming for 17 minutes that day, in honor of the 17 lives lost during the shooting.
For brands, showing solidarity with their audiences by developing campaigns around issues they care about is almost an imperative, adds Jason Harris, CEO of the advertising firm Mekanism. Young people are the ones really pushing brands to engage politically and socially, and by 2020, half the workforce will be millennials. “You have to do it to inspire the workforce,” he says.
While there are a wealth of issues for brands to get involved with, the one they’re all thinking about right now is voter turnout. Which is tricky, because this is not exactly an issue that fits neatly into Zorick’s formula.
“Not that many people like to vote,” says Zeppa Kreager, director of the Creative Alliance, a coalition of over 80 brands and companies working to devote resources to social impact organized through Civic Nation, a nonprofit that runs campaigns to encourage people to take action. But at the same time, the companies under the umbrella of the Creative Alliance, which include Mekanism, MTV, and Broadway Video Enterprises, which produces Saturday Night Live, are dedicating their impact resources, in the lead-up to the midterms, to getting people to the polls. Why? Because the most direct way to effect societal change is to elect people that will push for that change.
Still, voter turnout among young people is generally dismal. A poll over the summer found that only 28% of people aged 18-29 were certain they would vote in the midterms, compared to 74% of seniors. For brands like SNL and MTV, whose audience is primarily young people, the opportunity to try to shift this dynamic was too large and important to pass up.
But in trying to inspire more young people to vote, they’re letting their audience lead the way. Even if people don’t like to vote, as Kreager says, “everybody wants to go to a party.” As the Creative Alliance was trying to figure out how to improve voter turnout, they worked with a professor at Columbia University, who had an idea that if organizations injected more fun into the voting process, more people might participate. Around two years ago, to test the idea, they started hosting nonpartisan parties (with free food) at polling places, and found that turnout at those sites rose by 4%. “We realized that there was a magical thing there,” Kreager says. This year, they’ve turned the idea into a campaign, Vote Together, which, through corporate partners like Comedy Central, MTV, and Mekanism, is directing people to the over 2,000 parties they’re hosting across the country. “It’s making voting more inclusive and more celebratory,” Kreager says.
MTV, too, has taken its own spin on interpersonal connection as a means to voter turnout, and launched a campaign called Plus-One The Vote to encourage its audience to bring a friend along to the polls to vote in the midterms.
What’s interesting about the voter participation efforts brands are backing this year is they’re not, on the surface, overtly risky. As Britta von Schoeler, head of Broadway Video Enterprises, says: “It’s still really scary for a brand to put a stake in the ground on a social issue.” At least on its surface, voter turnout is nonpartisan, but especially when young voters are activated, it tends to benefit the same progressive causes these brands’ audiences want to see advanced.
Ultimately, by stepping up to improve voter turnout, brands are helping to “change power over time,” Zorick says. As a brand, “you can’t just chase issues, but you have to have a core mission and belief as a company, and use that to respond.” Through voter turnout campaigns, brands are leaning on their skills at connecting with their audience, and doing so in a way that encourages them to use that connectivity to effect change.